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Singing Them Back

Written by Marissa Lingen
Illustrated by Jessica Douglas

Every fall, I was there when my grandmother sang the disir back.

They had an agreement with our family, back through the ages, carried over the sea when our ancestors came to the New World. They were ours and we were theirs, and every fall on the Disting holiday, we renewed our bond. We sang to them, to ask them to return to us after a summer apart, and they always came.

I'd never done it without her. I supposed I'd have to start now.

The university was generous with bereavement leave, but I had to go back to work the Monday after her funeral anyway. Like many old Norwegian ladies, my mormor had never been the sort to sit around moping when there was work to do, and I had plenty. The grad students could proctor the tests for the undergrads, could get themselves through the weekly meeting, but we had a grant proposal due Friday. I've never been the kind of advisor to make the grad students write the whole grant proposal without supervision. I had to do that too many times myself when I was a research assistant.

Hilary was already there when I got to the office. Hilary almost always beat me there in the morning. Most grad students are consumed by their work, but Hilary lit up with it. She was a joy to have in our research group, and the other students held her in some awe.

To tell the truth, so did I.

She was not waiting outside my door, but I could tell she had given me a discreet amount of time to check my phone messages and my e-mail before pouncing on me. Her section of the proposal was waiting in my inbox, annotated. It is difficult to quash such enthusiasm.

Sometimes it seemed that she was personally offended by the unproven nature of Thurston's geometrization conjecture. She had already written papers that would have made a thesis for any of my other students, but it wasn't enough for Hilary. She kept stretching her hands out for something more.

That, I understood. The disir had brought it to me.

The disir come to us in our homes, in our real lives, but also sometimes in our dreams. They have an old habit of revealing people's destinies in dreams. I don't recall ever asking for it, but apparently they decide, not the dreamer. So they came to me, and they showed me mathematics. They showed me such beautiful abstract concepts that I woke breathless and weeping, and the next night they showed me myself at the heart of it all, my hands tangled in the structure of the universe itself.


I was twelve. I dropped the idea of becoming a doctor as though it had never existed. I belonged in mathematics.

My mother was dubious about the whole affair, but Mormor convinced Mor that the disir did not steer us wrong. Mormor had sung the disir for longer than my mother's life, since she was a sturdy teenage farm girl, and she put a good deal of trust in their wordless assurances.

So when fall came, I joined the math club, and I spent Saturday afternoons at my grandmother's, learning to cook all the old-world foods my mother had scorned in favor of lentil dal and pesto pizzas. Mor thought of it as teenage rebellion until I finished my Ph.D. in topology. After that she was just relieved that I got a faculty position at the university in my hometown and took over Mormor's Saturday afternoons again, and she tolerated my apparently conventional cooking and adored my apparently conventional husband, who had his own Norwegian gran and fought Mormor for the last piece of pickled herring at holidays.

And even through my sadness, Mormor's memory and the disir's visions made me smile, and helped me to help Hilary and my other grad students reach for more.

"Hil, you have to calm down," I told her. "A grant application is a lengthy process. We're going to be sitting around twiddling our thumbs for a while now."

"It could make such a difference," she said dreamily. "If we just didn't have to spend quite so much time—oh, you know I don't mind teaching, exactly, but the time, the calculus, all the calculus—"

"I know, I know," I said, although I didn't mind the calculus sections. "Teaching is part of the job, Hil. I teach you and the others, you teach the study groups, and everybody winds up knowing more math."

She flushed. "I didn't mean to complain. I just—look through the files I sent you. I really think this is a promising direction."

"I do, too, at first glance," I said. "We'll pursue it. I promise. We're all doing what we can. I think you should get out and get some sunlight, all right? Think about something besides math for a while?"

"And something besides bureaucrats," she said glumly.

I laughed. "Yes, something besides bureaucrats, too."

After several hours of filling out more forms, checking over proposals, calling for signatures, I began to wish I could have taken my advice to Hilary. It was a relief just to get out of the building, to roll the windows down and howl tunelessly along with the radio and not think about who needed what and from whom I'd have to beg, borrow, or steal it. The disir had shown me a world of mathematics that was cool, orderly, ethereal. It wasn't the world mathematics had given me at all.

When I was in kindergarten, I drew a picture of the disir during coloring time. Nine women in white, nine women in black. Some of them were turning cartwheels, some brooding in corners. Even at that age, I knew you could never tell with the disir. My kindergarten teacher called my mother, confused and worried, and she and Mormor sat me down to discuss it.

"Darling, you can't draw the disir," said Mor. "They're spiritual beings. You can't just put them in crayon."

"I did."

"What she means is that you shouldn't," my grandmother jumped in. "They're not for the people at school to know. They're just for us."

I eyed her skeptically.

"The people at school don't have disir, Karin."

"How do you know?"

Mormor smiled. "A fair point. They might, and they might just not tell me about it, the way I don't tell them."

"Why don't you tell? Why is it secret?"

"They don't like to be talked about. Do you like it when people talk about you?"

I thought about it. "It depends on what they say."

Mor threw her hands up, but Mormor smiled again. "That's true, Karin. Sometimes it's not good enough to treat people the way we want to be treated. Sometimes we need to treat them the way they want to be treated."

"And the disir don't want people talking about them?"

"It's part of our bargain with them," said Mormor. That was the first I heard of the bargain. I must have looked confused. Mormor leaned forward. "When our ancestor Kjersten was packing to leave the old country, her disir came in and flung her clothes back out of her trunk again. She spread her hands to them in despair. 'What can I do?' she said. 'There is no food for another mouth here; the land can only hold so many. Shall I push my brother's family into starvation?'

"'But we want you,' said the disir. 'Jonas's family is not sure of us. They treat us like skittish beasts, and they would ignore us if they could. You would never ignore us. We would have a family with you.'

"'I can have no family here,' said Kjersten. 'Lars and I must go to the New World. Can you not come with me?'

"The disir thought about it. 'All the way to the New World?'


"'Over the ocean and farther still?'

"'Yes. You could come. We will have a farmstead again.'"

I interrupted her. "The disir don't talk."

Mormor smiled. "No, they don't, do they? But they manage to communicate with us just the same. And when they agreed to come to America with Kjersten, our ancestor, they didn't want her to talk to others about them. They knew they would be strange spirits in this land, and they didn't wish to be the topic of gossip for miles around.

"You can keep their secret, can't you, Karin? If you can't, they might not come back to us."

I was flatly incredulous that anyone would attempt to punish the mountain that was my grandmother for something my small self had attempted. "They could just ignore me."

"No," said Mormor, gently insistent. "It's all our family or none. You and your cousins are part of them with me. If they won't come back for you, they won't come back for anyone. Will you promise?"

"I promise not to tell anyone outside the family," I said, awed by the totality of their needs. And from that time on, I was theirs, and they were mine. My whole life was colored black and white around the edges, the wondrous family secret setting me apart in my own head. But it couldn't separate me from all of the world's demands, and losing Mormor shook my world all the way down.

The days slipped past, and Indian summer turned to true fall. Hilary could not understand why I was so calm about the grant application. "Do they give you serenity with your doctorate?" she demanded.

"If you're lucky, I suppose they might," I said. "Heaven knows I didn't get any until I was done with my first postdoc at least." I saw that she was only half-kidding. "Hilary. Dear. It will be fine. We have all the administrative t's dotted and i's crossed, thanks in no small part to your attention; we have rewritten the proposal until the prose sings and the math—" I waved my hands helplessly. "It pops off the page. Go, go home, do your laundry, buy yourself groceries, think about something else. I don't care what. I'll send out the packet on my way home, and tomorrow you can come in and think about math again and not marketing."

She smiled. "That will be a change, won't it? All right. I'll do that."

I scuffed through the leaves and managed to get the application to the post office two blocks from campus long before it closed. The late-afternoon sunlight turned too quickly to dusk. By the time I got home, it was almost dark, and Eric already had the bread in the oven and was working on the chicken. His best friend Andy was there, drinking a beer and offering commentary on Eric's cooking techniques. I collected hugs from both of them and a kiss from my husband.

"How's the world of numbers?" Andy asked, as I washed my hands and dug into the crisper to start the salads.

"I haven't seen a number in weeks," I said, "unless you count all the damned phone numbers and identification numbers and all that with this grant application. And anyway, you know mathematicians try not to deal with numbers whenever they can."

"Grad school takes away their ability to do simple arithmetic," said Eric. It was the same joke— half joke —he'd made a dozen or a hundred times before, but we smiled anyway.

And we made more of our old jokes over again, and Andy told us the latest installment in his office drama, which had acquired Greek proportions, though we were not yet sure whether it would turn out a comedy or a tragedy. As he was leaving, Andy promised to make sure he was not in the final body count if there turned out to be one, which reassured us immensely.

"Disting is coming, honey," I said.

It took Eric a minute to know what I meant. "With your grandmother's . . . spirits. Disir."


"I'm a lot more used to this sort of thing from your mom than from you, y'know."

"They're very . . . solid," I told him. "You'll see. Assuming I can do it right, that is."

He kissed the top of my head. "I'm sure you'll do fine, honey."

"You shouldn't be," I said. "You've heard me sing."

"But maybe it's not about the singing. When Andy's niece sings him 'Row Your Boat' on the phone, he's not analyzing it for pitch-perfect performance."

"Thanks," I said.

"No, but you know what I mean."

I thought about it. "I suppose. That it's more the symbol than the song."

"I think so."

"I hope so," I said, "or I am so screwed."

"Karin, relax," he said. "You've been so caught up in your grant proposal, and now this. When was the last time you made cookies, or just sat down with a book?"

"I don't know."

Eric shook his head. "Neither do I. You're always shooing your grad students out for a break, but you need to listen to that yourself. Don't worry about it. You'll do fine."

"I guess."

When I was fifteen, I joined the debate club at my high school. It was a distraction from math, but not a terminal one, and besides, people were always telling me that colleges liked to see well-rounded people, and they didn't seem to mean people who spent time with their families or entertained themselves well.

I took to debate readily, arguing with almost as much glee as I learned math. The similarities leapt out at me without my seeking them, with almost synaesthetic glee—the firm lines of an argument carrying through, the curves of insinuation, solid points of reference. I cultivated a cool style, sometimes contemptuous as only a teenager can be, other times gentle and nearly imploring. As I went on, I found that I liked to implore more and sneer less, and I won more rounds.

In my junior year, I argued my way to the final round of the state debate tournament. In the middle of my rebuttal, I saw flashes of black and white out in the hall. I finished my speech with a glow of the joy that comes of doing things just right.

I don't know what family spirits my opponent had at her disposal, but she won anyway.

I was less bothered than I would have expected; I had done well, and I had done my best. The disir were behind me, always waiting. I went back the next year and won the finals.

They had always been the source of my confidence. I had never needed to be confident about them before. Mormor had always taken care of it. But I didn't need a reminder that I could never rely on that again.

I got into the closet and fetched out the long red dress. It hung loose around me, the way it had around Mormor the last year. I went out to the fireplace in the living room—I had only considered houses with fireplaces, because in the back of my mind I was always thinking of the ritual for Disting. Mormor's house had smelled like the things she had left behind her, her hairspray and her cheap green perfume and her tired old body; but it also smelled of her almond cookies, and very faintly of the ritual fires at Disting. Now mine would, too. I laid the fire. Eric sat in our old wooden rocker and watched me.

I lifted my hands like Mormor always had, and I threw my head back, and I sang.


I would like to say that nothing happened. Nothing would have been an improvement. Instead I had to know that with each note I missed, each interval that was not even a near approximation, I was slipping further and further away from bringing the disir back. I'd seen Eric blank-faced before, but he'd gone so far past it that I had to wonder if rigor mortis had set in. I finished the song doggedly—inasmuch as I was singing it at all—and let my arms drop. I flopped on the couch.

"They're not here," I said.

"Are you sure—" He hesitated, trying to be gentle. "Are you sure they'll come for anyone but your grandmother? Maybe it was just—just a thing they had with her."

"She said it was all the generations." I picked at the tassel on the blue afghan Mor had made us for a wedding present. "She said it had been passed down from her grandmother and before that through all the years in the old country, from the time our ancestors pushed the Saami north."

Eric, who had a Saami grandfather, raised an eyebrow at me.

I waved a hand at him. "When we have kids, the Saami will come back to the disir again, so can we go on with this without ethnic politics?"

"All right. They have come back and come back."

"But all the others sang for them. Sang right."

"Could you try it again?" He saw the look on my face and grimaced. "Yes, all right, I can see why not. What else can we do?"

"I don't know. Mormor never said."

He put his arms around me. "I'm sorry, hon. Maybe they . . . had the wrong day."



Mormor and I had talked about a lot of things, but the worst-case scenario was not one of her strong points—at least, not as long as she could avoid it. It was to her credit, I suppose, that she didn't try to dodge her diagnosis in the end.

I could hear from her voice on the phone that there was something wrong, but I tried to have a normal visit with her. "We should get the cousins in to clean out your cabinets," I said. "You shouldn't have to do spring cleaning at your age, even though I know you can."


"It's no trouble, really," I rattled on, "and Tove and Siri will say the same, and the others. Do you want to make some spritz? I could do with fresh spritz."

"Sit down, Karin."

Mormor and I almost never just sat. We always did things, projects. I sat.

"I asked your mor not to tell you this because I wanted to say it myself. Karin, my kidneys are failing. They were damaged when I was sick as a little girl, and they're not going to last me more than a few years with dialysis."

I sucked in a breath. One of the white-robed disir put a hand on my shoulder. "Can't you get a transplant?"

She fixed me with one of her stubborn looks. "Maybe. I might be able to find a match eventually. But what would it buy me? A year, two, five? The odds aren't good. I've had a good run. I've seen my grandchildren grow up, spent time with a great-grandchild or two. Better that someone young should have a chance, Karin."

"What about the disir?"

"You will take care of them once I go," said Mormor. "We settled that years ago."

Years ago I didn't have to think about what it actually meant. "I didn't mean that. I meant you should ask them."

"Ask them for what?"

"They have magic," I said, frustrated. "They're supposed to help this family. Make them heal you."

Her smile was already weary. "It doesn't work that way, Karin."

"Why not?"

"They don't do that kind of magic. They can't." The white-robed one at my shoulder drew a skinny finger down my arm. I squirmed out of her reach, shuddering.

Thinking back, I wondered if that had done it, or if I would have failed to call them back no matter what. If it was something I'd done, or not done, or if it was . . . just me.

I called my mother, and she refused to talk on the phone. Needed to see my face. Rather than listening to the whole speech about auras and phone lines, I caved in and got in the car. When I got there, she was dealing just fine with auras and phone lines in order to yell ("we don't yell, darling, we speak firmly") at Far's sister, Beth, on the phone. I made myself coffee and settled in with a handful of roasted almonds, making patterns with them on the kitchen table like I was still five years old.

"Oh, that wretched woman," she said, hanging up the phone. "She delights in disturbing other people's equilibrium, I swear she does. Always has. And you look distraught—what on earth is it?"

"Mor, I failed," I said.

"Now, that's not the kind of talk we like to hear!" she said. "You've perhaps had a temporary setback."

"Mor. I tried to sing the disir back, and—you know me and singing. They didn't come."

Mor fluttered her hands. "They go out into the cosmos, you know? They need to get their energy renewed from their mystical sources."

"Oh, God, Mother," I said.

She waggled her finger at me. "Don't you 'Mother' me. I've learned a few things about the cosmos in this lifetime."

"Well, then, are you going to sing them back?"

"They shouldn't be bound by our customs," said Mor, not meeting my eyes. "What's Disting to the disir? What's Thursday, for heaven's sake?"

"It's the day they were supposed to come back," I said stubbornly.

"Maybe they thought November was not the time to return to Minnesota. Who could blame them?"

"They're fine with November. They don't like summer," I said. "That's why they go in the summer. Mor, it's all part of the bargain. Why would they make the bargain if they didn't want to work by those rules?"

"Maybe they've changed their minds," she said.

That I couldn't dismiss. "How are we supposed to know what they think now, then?"

"Keep an open mind," she said.


"Listen. Just listen. If they have something to say, they'll make themselves heard." She grimaced. "Heaven knows they were never quiet before, for spirits who can't speak."

She had a point.

But while listening is all well and good, the more I thought about it, the more I thought I could listen while pursuing other solutions. Maybe. So I got my cousin Siri to meet me for coffee, in hopes that she'd agree to help.

"Siri, I know you've had a hard time with the disir lately, but I tried singing them back like Mormor used to, and they didn't come, and I need them."

"The what now?"

"The disir. I don't think you were ever there at Disting, but Mormor always sang a song—"

"Oh, that's nice!"

"It's more than nice, it's serious. Our family needs the disir to come back. They're—they're—" I looked at her mask of polite interest dubiously. "They're like the spirit of our family. Mormor told us all about them. Surely you remember."

Siri smiled. "Honey, you can't mean the stories Grandma told us when we were little."

I was speechless for a moment.

"I mean, her cousins were a little weird, but I don't believe half of what Grandma said about them. She just liked to tell stories."

"Her . . . cousins."

"All those funny old ladies."

"The disir."

"I don't remember their last name, Karin. You were always more into the genealogy stuff than I was."

"They weren't her cousins."

Siri rolled her eyes. "Whatever they were, the other old ladies from the old country. If you want to ask them over, just ask. You don't need me to do it."

"They won't listen to me," I said weakly.

"Well, I don't know why you think they'd listen to me."

"You can sing." And I knew then that it was no use, that the look she gave me was never going to change into acceptance and comprehension, that even if she sang, they wouldn't come. "Never mind, Siri. I guess they're just stubborn old Norskies. Thanks anyway."

"Good luck," she said. "There's nothing as stubborn as those old Norwegian ladies when they get a notion in their heads. Sometimes the ones at the hospital drive Tove just mad."

"I'll bet," I said weakly. Siri started telling me some outrageous story about one of Tove's patient's glass eyeball, and from there, things became, if not more normal, at least more usual. We parted with hugs and promises to call each other soon, and I knew we wouldn't see each other until Christmas.

I wandered from my classes to my office in a daze that week. Hilary practically ran the research group meeting for me, and one of the first-year grad students patted my hand and murmured words of sympathy about my grandmother before fleeing in newly adult chagrin.

I was there with Mormor when the disir left her the last time for the summer. Disir did not know about white shoes at Easter or Memorial Day. They left when the spirit moved them, never before May Day and rarely after Syttende Mai. I spent even more of the days with her after May Day because of it.

"It's today," she said one afternoon after I had brought in her tray. Her voice had gotten breathy, and she paused a lot, but it didn't stop her from saying what she wanted to say.

"You think so?"

"I know it. You know it, too, daughter's daughter."

She was right; I did. The disir wandered the room fiddling with familiar knickknacks and running their fingers through her hair. Making sure they remembered, I thought. "Well, you'll sing them back in the fall."

"No, I won't," she said.

I pretended I didn't hear her.


"Don't talk that way, Mormor."

"I've spoken truth all my life, and I don't intend to stop now."

I bit my lip. Then I looked up and had to laugh.

Mormor followed my gaze. One of the black-clad disir was hanging bonelessly over the mantel, swinging a leg back and forth.

"They're . . . not very dignified, are they?" I asked.

She smiled faintly. "What's dignity to them?"

"They don't seem to miss it," I admitted.

"We could learn from them," said Mormor. "Whenever I have faltered—whenever I wondered about what people would say—I have thought of the disir swinging from the chandelier, stealing the cookie dough, behaving for all the world like shameless children. And then I think that it doesn't matter at all what people say. It matters what we say, and what we do."

"That's a good thing to know," I said around a lump in my throat. The dis on the mantelpiece nodded and slithered around until I couldn't see when she became black mist and soaked into the chimney.

Mormor was never one for making a fuss, but she flinched when the disir left.

I knew it was hard on my students to watch me upset and not know why. Hilary tried to ask, subtly, if there was anything I wanted her help with, anything bothering me at all. Finally she blurted out, "Anything at home?" I smiled gently and told her no, but it wasn't true; the hole in my life was even harder for Eric than it was on the grad students.

"Maybe I could do it," said Eric. "Man and wife are supposed to be one flesh, right? So maybe I'm the part of your flesh that can, er. . . ."

"That can sing."

"Well, yah." He looked at me hopefully.

"So I'll tell you what to sing, and then you sing it?"

"We could try it."

The problem—one of the problems—was that it's extremely hard for someone who can't sing to convey a tune accurately. We ended up playing a sort of hot-and-cold game for half the notes, and I think Eric was exhausted before he ever started. Regardless, we worked around to where he could sing something approximating the right tune.

"Sort of think of them coming, if you can," I said. "Think of welcoming them."

Eric eyed me dubiously, but he took a deep breath and projected with his fuzzy baritone. I didn't marry the man for his voice, but I can't say it hurt his case. The disir, however, did not seem to be similarly moved. There was not so much as a twitch of skirt around the corner, a hint of long finger peeking from behind the sofa, a straggle of hair whipped just out of view.

"Did I do the tune wrong?" asked Eric after a moment.

"No, hon," I said, putting my arms around him. "You did fine. It's just . . . it's just them, I guess. And me. They're supposed to be my disir, and I haven't done enough."

"You've done fine," he said. "I don't want you to drive yourself crazy over this." I refrained from the obvious self-deprecating wisecrack, but I thought it.

The next day, I left Eric and Andy playing chess and headed for the university library. They gave me a chic reference librarian in red-rimmed glasses who said mythology was one of her specialties.

"My grandmother used to tell me stories about the disir," I said, "so I was wondering . . ."

"Of course, certainly," she said. She typed some things into her computer and looked at me over her spectacles. "Some sources think they're the angels of death."

"That's not right," I said automatically. The librarian peered at me closer, and I tried to recover. "That doesn't fit in with the stories my grandma knew at all. They visited the living, not the dying." They didn't even come back when she was dying.

The librarian nodded. "Those old stories will vary a lot. Sometimes it's geography; the gods of our town are the demons of the next town over."

"They're not gods, either. In the stories."

I had the feeling that I was vying for the tiresome patron award for that day. "Folktales really do vary."

"Is there anything else about the disir in there? Any other stories?" I asked.

"They tell people's destinies in dreams," she said.

"Yes! Yes, that's what my grandmother said."

"And they might be land spirits, or they might not. And they don't seem very easy to pin down."

"That sounds just like Mormor," I said.

The librarian smiled, relieved that I was apparently done making unreasonable demands that she read my ancestral mind. "Some myths end up resembling their tellers. That's how the process goes."

She found me a few reference volumes on Norse folktales and myths, and I leafed through the indices, scowling at half of them. Half of them were just flatly wrong, and the other half repeated things I knew. The disir hadn't made deals with their people in the old country, not in the same way. My problem was my own.

When I got home, they'd finished their chess game and put on Army of Darkness. I flopped on the couch next to Eric and watched with them as Ash returned to S-Mart. Andy cleared out not too much later than that, saying something about the built-in cabinets we were supposed to help him with that weekend.

When the door closed, I turned to my husband. "Andy loves you," I said.

Eric looked pained. "He's my best friend."

"But he doesn't tell you he loves you."

"Guys don't say that kind of thing!"

"Some guys do," I said.

"Well, we don't." He turned away, fiddling with a stack of magazines. "Geez, Karin, come on, we're from Minnesota. You know the old joke about the Norwegian man who loved his wife so much—"

"He almost told her," I finished with him. "I know."

"Don't you think she knew?"

I hadn't thought about it much before. The wife in the joke was my grandmother, my great-aunts, all the women in my family all the way back. Even when I married a stoic Scandinavian-American male, I made sure it wouldn't be me; I made sure he wouldn't be like that with me.

I didn't remember Morfar much, but I remembered Mormor's voice when she spoke of him. It was not the voice of a bitter woman who had lost her husband still uncertain of his love. I had spent so much time envying her the certainty of the disir, these last days, that I had almost forgotten what sureties we did have in common.

I took my mother out Christmas shopping and had lunch with my cousins for no reason. I had never had Christmas without the disir before, and I didn't relish the prospect, but finals and snowstorms came along and swallowed our lives whole.

I was still marking exams for the first semester of graduate topology when Hilary ran in, snowflakes still unmelted in her hair. "I've finished it," she said breathlessly. "I've—I've got it, here, read, look. I've finished it."

I took the papers from her hand. "You've—"

"I've seen how to take Perelman's work beyond the finite fundamental group limitation."

I scanned the pages. They were messier than Hilary's usual work, the writing wandering upward at the end of each line, arrows leading me from one point to another. The pieces fell into place, one after another, with the universe-shifting click of a good proof.

I laughed.

"Did you find a mistake?" she asked, suddenly deflated.

"No. No, I don't think so. You'll need to develop this section, but—I think you did it." She was still watching me a bit warily, so I held my arms out. She hugged me, giggling when I picked her up off the ground a little. "You did it. Call your mom. Call the others. We'll have a party for you before the next semester starts. This is—" I paused, grinning. "You know how huge this is. You didn't need me to tell you. You already knew."

"Yeah," she admitted, "but—yeah."

"Trust yourself," I said. "You're a hell of a mathematician. Now get home before the blizzard keeps us both stuck here."

She raced off down the hall, laughing like a little kid. With her black coat, the crazy laugh reminded me of the disir.

But the world they'd shown me, the special destiny they'd given me when I was twelve, was hers. It wasn't mine.

They had shown me my own hands tangled in the structure of the universe. I had felt it. But working as a mathematician wasn't like that for me. Mine were not the sweeping cosmic insights. Mine were not the brilliant proofs that made the shocking seem obvious. Mine . . . were the grad students. The undergrads who suddenly got abstract algebra just before they were going to change to a psych major. Mine were the piles of paperwork and the files upon files of grade-calculating spreadsheets. And I liked it that way.

The disir had been wrong about me.

Perhaps they had been wrong not to return, perhaps not, but they had shown me the path of my life, and it was not a path I could walk. I had neither the skill nor the intention—what I really loved, once I stopped thinking of my destiny, was the students. And I had them in abundance.

I drove home very carefully in the snow.

When we are not sure what else to do, Minnesota girls bake. I made six dozen gingerbread and a gross of chocolate peanut blossom cookies that weekend. I fussed and fretted and tried to figure out who would get how many cookies in which box. I had never made Christmas cookies without the disir. They had always been there around the edges, dipping their long fingers into the batter and licking them like naughty children.

I missed my mormor. I missed the way she would slap their hands away, and the way she cracked jokes about them, and the way she was full of instructions and advice, even when I wasn't going to take any of it.

I got out the cookie press for the spritz.

We had made spritz together when I was small, butterflies in the summer, Christmas trees and poinsettias in the winter. We sprinkled them with colored sugar and placed Red Hots in the center of a few of them, for my dad, because Mormor always indulged her son-in-law the way he indulged her daughter.

I mixed the familiar firm dough. The almond scent worked its way into my hands. My own tuneless humming didn't bother me anymore. I loaded the cookie press, twisting the knob to pack the dough in tighter. The first cookie was a loss, of course. It always was. Back in the bowl. The second came out a little large and a little lopsided. I left it. Sometimes you live with imperfection, and sometimes you have confidence that it will come out in the baking.

I had three cookie sheets going in rotation, one baking and one cooling while I pressed cookies onto the third. I was sprinkling green decorating sugar over the tiny tree cookies when I saw a flicker of black out of the corner of my eye. I went still. It disappeared. I picked up the red sugar for the flower cookies. Something brushed past behind me, and it wasn't Eric.

I hummed tunelessly under my breath. A long, skinny white hand darted past me toward the bowl of dough, and I grabbed it by the wrist on its way back with its lump of dough.

"Come back, have you?" I turned, and the disir stood in a ragged double row behind me, grinning and scuffing their feet like children. "Well, and I suppose you want some spritz?"

But they were already gobbling the hot little tree cookies from the cooling racks, tossing them between their long fingers as they ate, and in my own house I was finally home.

* * *

for Elise

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